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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Rogers : Judge approves city's settlement in Hispanic suit


Posted on Saturday, November 15, 2003

FAYETTEVILLE - A federal judge approved a settlement Friday between the city of Rogers and Hispanic motorists who had sued the city's police department in March 2001, claiming that it practiced racial profiling.

The settlement included no monetary damages for either side but specified protocol changes police must make within four months aimed at stifling biased policing.

U.S. District Court Judge Jimm L. Hendren said he would file a written order within two weeks in which he likely would retain a one-year period of supervision to ensure the settlement was satisfied.

Attorneys for both sides gushed praise for each other's willingness to reach a compromise and characterized the settlement as beneficial for everyone involved.

Thomas Kieklak, a Springdale attorney for the city, said most of the required changes were healthy for the police department, while plaintiffs' attorneys downplayed the alleged police stops that led to the suit, which gained class-action status in August."We think it's misunderstanding and bad press that started the whole perceived problem,"said Joseph Berra, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund that lent its support to the suit.

The settlement states that Rogers police will: Implement a general order prohibiting racial profiling that includes punishment for employee violators. Train employees in cultural diversity. Limit local police enforcement of federal immigration laws by prohibiting police action against individuals based only on their actual or perceived immigration status. Make it easier for residents to report racial profiling or mistreatment by police. Invite officials from the Mexican Consulate to teach police about the matricula identification card and train them in its security features.

Establish a five-person committee to monitor the settlement and advise on policies for four years. Track racial profiling by documenting individual police stops.

Berra said that too much discretion on individual stops is what allowed bias to creep in.

But with the documentation, which would track the ethnicity of those stopped and the grounds for the stop, biased policing would be inhibited, he said."It's checking off a number of boxes plus being a bit more diligent in making an arrest report,"he said."But it's not going to be a significant amount of extra time or burden for them.

"In the end, we're not asking more than what a lot of other police departments are doing."

The requirement to limit inquiry into a stopped Hispanic's immigration status angered Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

"There's an official policy of looking the other way, especially if [the matricula is] going to be accepted as a valid ID,"he said.

Mehlman said the use of a matricula alone should be suspicion enough to inquire into a person's immigration status.

But Kieklak said a matricula would at least let police identify those involved in stops and accidents.

"Bottom line, Rogers police, they want to be able to identify people,"he said.

Kieklak said that the protocol changes satisfied not only the demands of the plaintiffs but also met racial profiling guidelines issued by the University of Arkansas' Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock and the Arkansas Municipal League.

The suit originally claimed that Rogers police routinely stopped Hispanic motorists without cause and asked for immigration papers.

"The complaints diminished after the lawsuit,"Berra said."Maybe a part of that was the lawsuit itself."